$2.2 billion later, Dominion preps grid for renewable energy


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Jul 25, 2023

$2.2 billion later, Dominion preps grid for renewable energy

Linemen from Carolina Power and Signalization install a cross arm and transfer the conductor to a new electric pole that is being installed as part of Dominion's grid modernization effort. Fifty feet

Linemen from Carolina Power and Signalization install a cross arm and transfer the conductor to a new electric pole that is being installed as part of Dominion's grid modernization effort.

Fifty feet above Buford Road, lineman Hunter Curtis grabbed a live wire on a 32,500-volt mainfeeder circuit and, with hand signals and a quiet word or two, directed crew mate Jameson Lane to gingerly move the roller he had locked onto the wire a little lower.

When Curtis tied that live wire to an insulator at the top of a new pole the crew had erected the day before, he took one more step on a multiyear, $2.2 billion-and-counting Dominion Energy “grid transportation plan” to redesign and reconfigure its 66,400-mile-long network of wires connecting more than 2 million customers to its power plants.

Virginia’s push for renewable energy — wind- and solar-generated electricity — along with the growth of electricity glutton data centers and the rise of electric vehicles will mean a fivefold increase in the rate at which electricity use has been growing and pose never-before-expected challenges to managing voltages on the grid.

STARTED: In 2019 after state lawmakers approved a controversial bill allowing Dominion to use some of the excess profits it had earned to finance the effort.

THE NETWORK: About 66,400 miles of wires connecting more than 2 million customers to power plants.

WHAT'S BEEN SPENT ON UPGRADES: $1.05 billion so far and another $1.17 billion projected over next few years.

“The grid was basically designed for one-way flows, from generator to substation to customers,” said Aaron Tickle, Dominion’s manager for grid resiliency.

“Now, we have to think about two-way flows: thousands of power plants, like solar panels on roofs, that come off and on without warning ... electric vehicles that will change demand profiles.”

Drivers need to charge EVs at not completely predictable times, though Dominion expects many will be plugged in overnight, “what used to be our slow time,” he said.

Fixing ‘voltage islands’ and ‘voltage optimization’

In Richmond on June 1, workers from Carolina Power and Signalization install a cross arm and transfer the conductor to a new electric pole that is being installed as part of Dominion Energy's grid modernization effort. Dominion’s Virginia utility operating income for the first half of the year fell by 19% to $777 million, the company reported Friday.

The grid modernization program started in 2019 after the General Assembly approved a controversial bill allowing Dominion to use some of the excess profits it had earned to finance the effort. So far, the company has spent $1.05 billion on the project; over the next three years, it expects to spend about $1.17 billion, according to a filing at the State Corporation Commission.

Tickle is responsible for the grid project’s mainfeeder hardening work — the stronger poles and newer poles to be set up on 195 circuits that have seen at least twice as many outage minutes as average for the Dominion system. In some cases, as with a project on his to-do list in Farmville, it means relocating poles and wires — there, it will mean running a line that now crosses the Appomattox River after running through a stretch of swampy woods with a new set of poles and wires along a nearby road.

The pole Curtis and Lane would spend the day working on is one of hundreds along Buford Road to be replaced in order to make one of Dominion’s more outage-prone circuits, this one serving 3,560 customers, more reliable.

Those poles will stand 5 to 10 feet taller. They will be rooted in much deeper, 6 to 10 feet holes, and will have girths roughly 8 to 9 inches longer than the old poles. They will have lighter, fiberglass cross-arms — they’re gray-colored — which means if a cross-arm is hit by a falling branch or tree, it will be much less likely to bring down the whole pole. In many cases, poles are spaced closer together.

Hunter Curtis transfers a conductor from an old electric pole to a new one on Thursday. The new poles, which are thicker and stronger, are put deeper into the ground with lighter fiberglass cross-arms to decrease the risk of poles going down.

Tickle is also overseeing two other major pieces of grid modernization: fixing the handful of “voltage islands” on the system, and implementing new systems for regulating voltages — “voltage optimization” — that Dominion expects will yield a 1% savings in energy use.

All of it is complex, often finicky work.

On Buford Road, that day’s drizzle and the usual 7 a.m. rush to schedule the stepped-up electrical equipment triggers that make working on live electricity safer for some 180 crews working around the state, meant Curtis and Lane probably would not finish that pole that day. The last major act in what Mack Britt, the safety coordinator for contractor Carolina Power said “is really a ballet,” would be setting and up wiring a new transformer to replace the blackened, rusty one on the old pole.

“Rain and 32,500 volts don’t mix,” said Andy Clary, the Dominion Energy supervisor overseeing the Carolina Power crew, keeping a careful eye on the overcast sky.

Hunter Curtis prepares to transfer a conductor from an old electric pole to a new one on Thursday. The orange material covers everything that could become a safety hazard and protects the linemen from brush contact.

“When it gets damp, you can hear the wires start buzzing and VDOT won’t let us flag” because of the risk of accidents, he said.

Adding to the time squeeze, Curtis, Lane and the rest of their crew can only work on the narrow road as cars and trucks and school buses race by on a single lane, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

When the drizzle finally stopped, Curtis and Lane spent most of an hour carefully wrapping rubber sheets on the seven different wires for the two circuits on the pole — three for each circuit plus a neutral wire they also linked to one of their bucket trucks to act as ground. They had to maneuver their buckets between wires spaced just 56 inches apart.


“They’ll duck, sure,” Britt said.

Dominion’s contractors are currently working on 44 mainfeeder hardening projects, running over about 261 miles and serving 102,323 customers. It plans to work on an additional 67, serving some 306,889 customers, from 2024 to 2026. In all this work will cost $508 million. It will continue after that, too.

Customers on those circuits account for about 12% of Dominion’s ratepayers but see 42% of the utility system’s outages. On average, Dominion customers see 132 minutes of power outages a year, while those on lines the company wants to harden see an average of 469 minutes.

In a filing with the SCC, Dominion said a pilot hardening program, on 11 lines running over 60 miles, reduced outages by an average of 50%.

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During Winter Storm Frida on Jan. 3, 2022, one Goochland County line that had not been hardened sustained seven downed spans of wire between poles and 20 broken cross-arms. Repairs took the better part of two days to complete, and more than 900 customers were without power over that time. Another line feeding off the same substation that had been hardened did not suffer any outages.

The new “voltage optimization” approach that is also a big-ticket part of grid modernization aims for the same basic standard Dominion has long maintained: that the voltage reaching customers at the farther ends of those 66,400 miles of wire, aiming at 120 volts, actually stays within 114 to 126 volts for customers.

Voltage optimization is basically a system that gets almost real-time readings on voltages through smart meters on customers’ homes and businesses and that can then automatically issue commands to the safety devices that regulate voltages on a circuit.

It supplants the modeling approaches Dominion’s grid managers use as they monitor and control the system, moment by moment.

The optimization approach provides for more precise settings for voltage control — by applying engineering assumptions in the modeling approach, without that immediate read on actual voltages, grid managers build in a buffer to ensure there’s always enough juice everywhere in the system. More precise controls mean the system can run on lower voltages while remaining within current prescribed standards and ranges.

Dominion wants to target a systemwide 2-volt reduction — roughly speaking, the amount of electricity needed to power a small, 1-inch diameter motor that might move a toy car, or to power the chips in two hearing aids.

The utility has got elements of the system installed at 145 premises and expects to add 2,315 more by the end of this year, at which point the control systems fed by the continuous stream of voltage readings from those modern meters will be operational.

It aims to add 28,000 more premises to its voltage optimization network over the next three years — work that will also mean adding or upgrading transformers at its substations and other work on its lines and voltage-regulating gear.

In all, this push will cost about $215 million.

‘Think computer screens instead of dials’

Dominion also wants to tackle voltage islands.

These are substations with only one transformer: typically, a truck-sized gray box with pine-tree-like bushings linking it with the substation’s overhead wiring. Transformers step down voltages to safe levels for the station’s mainfeeder circuit. Backups exist in most of the Dominion system.

Now, there’s such a backup second transformer at Dominion’s Hanover Substation on Ashcake Road.

So far, Dominion has arranged the backups to eliminate three voltage islands and expects to complete that work for two more this year. It wants to eventually address six more over the next three years, at a cost of $25 million.

Such voltage islands expose customers to extended outages if a transformer fails, since it can take 24 hours to get one of the utility’s mobile transformers onsite. It can take one to two years for an order for one of these complicated bits of electric equipment to arrive to replace a failed unit.

Failures are rare, but when they happen, lights are off for long spells. In August 2021, a transformer failure at its Glasgow substation in the Shenandoah Valley cut power to more than 2,000 customers for more than 19 hours.

For the next phase of its grid modernization efforts, it wants to address six more, including Glasgow. These serve 8,169 customers.

These efforts are far less costly than mainfeeder hardening: Dominion estimates the six projects will cost $25 million.

Grid modernization also includes tree trimming work next to lines. Dominion has removed more than 16,900 ash trees and trimmed trees along more than 22,300 miles of its wires.

The project also involves installing intelligent grid devices, which are sensors that can pinpoint faults on lines to speed repair crews or to automatically reroute power flows to keep customers’ lights on.

The program will also involve installing more distribute energy resource devices — basically, the relays in substations that trip circuit breakers and switches but unlike older models operate much like the smart meters that are key to the voltage optimization work.

“Think computer screens instead of dials,” as Tickle explained them.

In August 1952, WAC-WAF recruiting officer Lt. Eileen M. Toomey swore in four newcomers to the Women in the Air Force program. Taking the oath (left to right) were Vida M. Burton of West Virginia and Richmonders Doris Cannon Davis, Mary Lou Keck and Joyce Dodson.

In April 1966, Mrs. Arch Clegg inspected newly planted flowers on a median along Broad Street in Richmond. Two varieties of holly and more than 1,000 petunias were being planted on Broad that week between Adams and Eighth streets. The displays, sponsored by Downtown Retail Associates, were to stay in the planters until fall.

In June 1947, Richmond officials put up warning signs near the city limits on West Broad Street to limit speeding, which was a top traffic concern at the time.

In August 1969, airmen John McGinnis (center) and Ronald McGurn entertained a deaf youth at Central State Hospital near Petersburg. They were two of several servicemen from nearby Fort Lee who volunteered regularly at the hospital’s children’s unit. McGinnis, once a manager at a supermarket that employed several deaf workers, knew sign language and was teaching it to youths as well as McGurn.

In November 1972, the Sears store in Cloverleaf Mall featured new coat and dress styles as well as furs. The Chesterfield County mall opened in August of that year; it closed in 2008, and the building was demolished in 2011.

In July 1953, tennis players Cliff Miller (from left), Al Dickinson and Bob Figg Sr. discussed the Country Club of Virginia’s annual tennis competition, which began the day before. Only Dickinson survived the first day of the competition.

In August 1965, the All American Touring Band and Chorus performed the finale at the Festival of Arts in Richmond’s Dogwood Dell. The ninth annual festival, sponsored by Federated Arts of Richmond Inc. and coordinated by the city parks department, lured about 52,000 people to 13 concerts and eight stage productions during the summer.

In April 1970, Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth J. Lee demonstrated the steps for classmates H.G. Shaw and W.W. Foster in a local folk dancing class.

In October 1982, Hull Street Station in South Richmond was vacant and boarded-up — the last regular passenger train to Danville had left 25 years earlier. The Southern Railway donated the station to the Old Dominion chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, which planned to convert the space into a museum and library. Today it houses the Richmond Railroad Museum.

In October 1986, preservationist and author Jim DuPriest led a tour of Richmond’s Jackson Ward neighborhood for 45 students from Luther Memorial School. The school was founded by German immigrants in 1856 at a time when the neighborhood had a notable German population; Jackson Ward later became one of the nation’s leading African-American communities.

In July 1979, Shirley McCoy performed a gospel number at a Jackson Ward reunion. The gathering at the Empire Theater brought together several hundred former residents and business owners of the Richmond neighborhood for a night of performances and community recognition.

In June 1949, Carl A. Throckmorton (left) showed Richmond Postmaster Fergus McRee one of the 100 new mailboxes that would be installed at city street corners. The additions would bring the total number of receptacles to about 680, meaning no city resident would have to walk more than three blocks to deposit a letter.

In October 1951, Mrs. R.L. Mattox showed off the unique mailbox at her home in Prince George County. The mailbox post was made using an old log cabin chain and required an hour’s worth of welding. Mattox and her husband were inspired by a design they saw in a magazine.

In May 1969, an informal folk gathering brought a crowd to Monroe Park in Richmond. Composer Dan Riddick and a group of guitarists from Washington performed; guests were asked to bring toys and clothing for needy residents in Washington.

In April 1949, Richmond Mayor W. Stirling King threw out the first pitch at the Richmond Colts home opener at Mooers Field. At right, wearing the new home uniform, is Colts manager Vinnie Smith. At left is Ray Schalk, manager of the Newport News Dodgers. The Colts won the Piedmont League game 6-5.

In July 1967, members of the Nolde family — Henry (from left), George, Carl and Arthur — watched bread roll off the assembly line at the Nolde Bros. Bakery in Church Hill in Richmond. Their relatives started a small baking operation in the 1890s, and by 1950, three area Nolde plants produced almost a million loaves per week to be sold nationally. Nolde closed in 1977.

In April 1954, P.R. Webb, a worker at the O.K. Foundry, loaded small castings into a cleaning machine at the company’s new location at 1005 E. Ninth St. in Richmond. Established in 1913, the foundry made machine castings for the tobacco, paper and agricultural industries.

In August 1972, William A. Richards, president of the Piccadilly Cafeteria chain, donned a chef’s cap and apron for a restaurant opening in the new Cloverleaf Mall in Chesterfield County. It was the second Piccadilly in the state; the first was in Norfolk.

In March 1983, Tommy Ferguson prepared his entry for a race hosted by the Richmond Radio-Controlled Car Racing Club. Nearly 30 cars raced on a small-scale 275-foot asphalt track, buzzing around at nearly 40 mph for an audience of more than 200 people in the parking lot behind Valle’s restaurant.

In June 1958, Reynolds Metals Co. employees Ethel Blue (left) and Bonnie Foy enjoyed some sun at the company’s new office space in Henrico County. The $10 million complex sprawled over 40 acres on a 160-acre property. Reynolds spent more than $150,000 on landscaping, including more than 10,000 trees, shrubs and plants as well as a greenhouse that supplied fresh flowers for the building.

In May 1953, shoppers crowded downtown streets for Richmond Day, a promotion that began the year before. Like Black Friday, the event lured shoppers to stores with deals, such as $1 televisions, 2-for-1 car deals and $1 dresses. Merchants reported strong sales.

In April 1972, Mrs. Peter B. Bahler (left) and Mrs. Jay J. Levit showed off “Vive la Symphonie” buttons that were given to season ticket subscribers for the Richmond Symphony’s upcoming concert season, which would have an international flavor and be led by French conductor Jacques Houtmann. Bahler designed the blue, white and red buttons; Levit led the season ticket campaign.

In February 1966, a front-end loader moved a new batch of salt that would be used to melt snow on Richmond streets. The stockpile, which had been severely depleted during the first part of winter, was kept at a railroad trestle in the Public Works Department area near Parker Field.

In October 1977, Bruce Buhrman (left) and Paul Soble stood in front of their soon-to-be restaurant, Soble’s, in Richmond’s Fan District. The building previously housed Cavedo’s Drug Store, which opened in 1916 when the area was sparsely settled. Soble had been a physical education teacher at Tuckahoe Junior High School but resigned so that he and Buhrman, who had tended bar together, could develop the restaurant.

In September 1950, ground was broken for the South Richmond Health Center at 14th and Bainbridge streets. Members of the Richmond public health community and South Richmond Community Nursing Service participated in the ceremony. The clinic, which opened in January 1952, was staffed by volunteer nurses.

In April 1985, Cammie Joyce, a daughter of Dr. William H. Parker for whom the former Parker Field was named, threw out the ceremonial first pitch at the new Diamond on opening night for the Richmond Braves. The new baseball stadium on the Boulevard replaced Parker Field.

In March 1974 at the state Capitol, Virginia first lady Katherine Godwin (second from right) unveiled a painting of the Virginia Declaration of Rights. The work, by Jack Clifton (front), was presented by the Virginia Daughters of the American Revolution. Assisting Godwin were state Sen. Edward E. Willey Sr. of Richmond and DAR official Mrs. John S. Biscoe.

In October 1989, two Virginia Commonwealth University students played racquetball in the school’s new gymnasium on Cary Street in Richmond. The brick building with glass cupola had been a farmers market in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and then became the City Auditorium, which hosted conventions and other events.

In September 1961, students entered Westhampton School in Richmond. That fall, Daisy Jane Cooper became the first African-American student to integrate the junior high school; the following year, she made similar history at Thomas Jefferson High School.

In May 1968, Andrea Queen and Betty Tenser attended a class sponsored by the Richmond YWCA to learn about basic auto mechanics, maintenance and on-the-road repairs. Their instructor was Bill Ferguson of Ferguson’s Garage.

Dave Ress (804) 649-6948

[email protected]

@DaveRess1 on Twitter

“The grid was basically designed for one-way flows, from generator to substation to customers. Now, we have to think about two-way flows: thousands of power plants, like solar panels on roofs, that come off and on without warning … electric vehicles that will change demand profiles."

Aaron Tickle, Dominion Energy manager for grid resiliency

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